Thinking Free Will is Important

. . . freedom is not the only value …There are other values: life; wellbeing; health, compassion, fairness, justice, equity, truth, consistency….Which values should prevail?

. . . freedom is not the only value …There are other values: life; wellbeing; health, compassion, fairness, justice, equity, truth, consistency….Which values should prevail?

Recently a book with an optimistic title appeared: Why Free Will is Real, by philosopher Christian List. When I heard about this book, I was especially interested, being one of the relatively small number of philosophers attracted to the idea that, yes, free will is real and a real part of who we are. So yes, I am grateful for this book, which has been well reviewed and is claimed to be readable by non-specialists; it should be of interest to many. Will reflections on free will explain recent appeals to freedom by anti-vaxxers? I doubt it, suspecting that few such people ponder issues of metaphysics. But given that much of the philosophical debate about free will relates to human agency and our sense of who we are and what we can do, I think there is some connection to be found. I will come to that point after describing the arguments in List’s book.

What is Free Will?

To appreciate the significance of the book, we may look first at List’s understanding of free will. If free will is real, what is it? What would it mean, for me to be the sort of creature that has free will? It doesn’t mean there is an item in my head or brain called “the will” and that little thing is somehow uncontrolled by anything else. That’s not it at all. But free will can be plausibly understood in clear terms without thinking this way. To have free will, a person would first have to be seeking goals (results) and have intentions. She would, second, have to have alternatives, between which she would be choosing. Finally, her decisions and choices would have to have causal power, meaning that when she chooses a course of action, she can indeed act on that choice. (Well, at least much of the time.) Often philosophers debating free will choose small examples – tea or coffee, or chocolate versus vanilla ice cream. But we surely reflect as well on more fundamental choices in human life — whom to marry, what career to pursue, or what university to attend. There is a sense in which just about everyone assumes free will in such contexts. We think about what to do, we make choices, and when we make them, we act accordingly, for choices large and small. We are in this sense agents, at least much of the time.

Challenges to Free Will

There are many challenges to free will. List spells out three major ones: materialism, determinism, and epiphenomenalism. (Epiphenomenalism is the view that all causes are physical; there is no such thing as mental causation.) The scientific and philosophical currency of these challenges explains the relevance of List’s book. He spells them out and responds to them. If radical materialism were true, then there would be no such thing as intention because our reflections on means and ends would be reducible to activity at the microphysical level and require explanation in terms of the actions and reactions of subatomic particles. If causal determinism were true, meaning that every event in the universe were fully caused by events preceding it, then our deliberations, decisions, and choices would similarly be fully caused. There would be no real alternatives, even though we might feel and think as though there were. And if all causes were to be physical, our choices would not cause our actions. Intentions that we presume to be products of thought and deliberation would be mere by-products of physical processes and as such causally redundant.

List calls his view ‘compatibilist libertarianism’. It’s compatibilist because he maintains that physical determinism and free will are compatible with each other, and it’s libertarian, because he contends that free will exists. (Note: libertarianism in this context is distinct from political libertarianism as advocated by Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick.)

Meeting the Challenges

How does List defend compatibilist libertarianism? He maintains that when we seek explanations, we should follow the practice and results of experts in the relevant sciences. When it comes to human behavior, the relevant sciences are not physics and microbiology. They are the social sciences: economics, psychology, history, anthropology, and sociology. Scientists in these areas do not seek to explain human actions and practices by moving to the microphysical level and detailing the nature and motions of sub-atomic particles. They couldn’t do that if they tried – and they don’t try. Rather, they refer to the human phenomena of norms, goals, desires, beliefs, institutions, and laws. If, for example, inflation increases from 3% to 4%, economists will offer explanations in such terms as increased consumer demand, shortages of goods, available cash, bank policy, and other matters at the societal level. Regularities will be explored and hypotheses considered in that context, not in terms of electrons, protons, and quarks. To consider another example, psychologists examining loneliness in urban centres will look to expectations of individuals, interactions between people, and obstacles to encounters and friendship, not to molecules and atoms. Social scientists study and predict at a conceptual level of individual and collective social life. This human level is not reducible to that of microphysics. That is List’s response to challenge of radical materialism.

His response to determinism works in a similar way. It does not rely on an assertion that there are uncaused events at the microphysical level (though there might be, implying randomness at that level). Rather, it rests on an appeal to the practices of social scientists and the distinction between levels of description. Agency presupposes alternative possibilities: I can eat the cheesecake or refuse it; I can marry Bob or Fred or no one at all; I can travel to Winnipeg or not; and so on. At the relevant level of description, alternatives such as these exist for reflective agents; they are prominent aspects of daily life. And social scientists explaining human behavior refer to them at that level, the level of everyday description, which is the appropriate level, and not one translatable into the language of microphysics. Free will operates at the level of agents’ choices between alternative possibilities. Whether the choices of human agents in some way amount to events fully caused on a distinct (physical) level is not at issue in such explanations. At the human level, the level at which they are articulated, considered and understood, alternatives exist.Moving to epiphenomenalism, List contends that this challenge too can be met. It’s not that there’s a little mental entity residing inside my head and calling the shots, but rather that the best explanations of choice and action, from the relevant experts, use higher level language and relations. To be sure, there is a basis in neural activity for thoughts and choices, but explanations of them by psychologists and other social scientists are not offered at the neural level. Instead, they refer to beliefs, desires, goals, and intentions. Scientists do not and cannot explain what people do by talking of neurons and synapses; rather they reason on a level, and about a level, where intentions and choices affect behavior. Mental causation exists: people’s deliberations and choices do control many of their actions.Managing without Free Will?What if you didn’t believe in free will? What would you say about decisions and responsibility? If all wrongful actions were fully excusable, no one would be responsible for them: blame and punishment would not be justified. What would you say? Thieves just steal; kidnappers abduct people; murderers kill. They do these things because they have to do them, being the people they are, in the circumstances where they find themselves. It seems that law would fall apart because there would be no responsibility. You would regard every crime and wrongful act as fully excusable because it had to happen, resulting inevitably from a sequence of other fully caused events from – well, the beginning of time. (Oh, when was that?) This is the view known as hard determinism: hard, because full causation is understood to be incompatible with the responsibility of agents. (If you don’t find this view appealing, you should share my gratitude for Christian List’s work.) How do hard determinists make sense of human life? How do they survive? Believe me they do; I’ve known some myself.

One view, rather incredibly defended by some philosophers, is called ‘Illusionism.’ On that account, free will should be defended, even though knowing metaphysicians will recognize it to be an illusion. We need a sense of free will for agency and choice, of which we have a powerful sense as we go through life. Introspectively, the sense of agency, choice and control is powerful — whether or not free will exists. I am convinced: I can have that cheesecake or not; I can travel to Winnipeg or not; I can marry Fred or not. Such is my sense of myself as an agent. The hard determinist will insist that these convictions are incorrect because they presuppose alternatives and, given full causation, those alternatives do not exist. They are illusory. But Illusionists will argue that these are illusions to keep, for our sense of self and our interactions with others. They are illusions individuals need and society needs. Philosophers should support them: hence the view, Illusionism. The metaphysical reality is hard determinism but according to Illusionism, its truth should not be advertised. Better still if it is not known, not even whispered. Rather, the illusions about free will, being necessary, should be supported.

There are also hard determinists who seek to manage without illusions. I had a close friend who was one. His account went like this: just as thieves, kidnappers, and murderers have to do what they do, so too do judges, lawmakers, prison guards, and all of us ordinary people who praise or blame each other. Life must go on as it does. And, with all the events fully caused, it will do that. Justification? If we seek control, look forward to the effects of actions and policies to see their results. If the results are negative, people may wish to change and be caused to do so by what they have discovered. If causes work out appropriately, they will do just that. Causes yield results; results may cause us to reconsider and change our ways. In this way our practices can reflect past actions.A related accommodation of agency to hard determinism relies on a reinterpretation of responsibility. People may take on responsibilities in the aftermath of actions; we can call this forward-looking responsibility. For example, a man who bore no (backward-looking) responsibility, causally, for the death of a woman’s husband might for various reasons take on the ongoing responsibility of paying her mortgage after his death. People do such things – on a hard determinist view they would presumably be caused to take on responsibilities by their benevolent nature – and they could continue to do that in the context of hard determinism. So responsibility would persist, though in an altered form.

Agency and Sense of Self

A more straightforward interpretation of choice and action is available if we deny determinism and accept that free will is real. As List urges in his book, we suppose ourselves to have goals and intentions, alternatives, and choices on which we act. At least some of the time, these choices affect what we do. Reviews of List’s book note that he takes a third person perspective responding to philosophical challenges. For the most part, he does not offer an introspective account of how we feel when we deliberate, choose, or act. We are agents, he assures us. But what is it like to be an agent? What is in the mind of an agent?

It is as an agent that I act. I suppose that I perceive and respond to the world around me, that I know and recognize people, understand objects like cakes, houses, dollar bills, and bicycles, and have pretty good ideas about things like grocery shopping and going to the library. Yes, all this is hopelessly mundane and may be boring to the reader, but the point is, it does go on and it is understood at the human level. Before acting, I think and make choices – well, at least some of the time. (I don’t usually just grab the cheesecake; I think about it first.) As a human being I am an agent, and as an agent, I understand myself as free in some fundamental ways. I am free in various senses. There is freedom to – freedom to think, to choose, to do, to act, to pursue favoured alternatives. And there is freedom from – freedom from interference or control by obstacles, including, significantly, obstacles posed by social regulations and other people. Freedom to involves my opportunities to act or not. Freedom from involves my own control over what I do. And these kinds of freedom are valuable. Even if they were illusory they would still have a value in that (illusions maintained) doing what I want to do would make me feel good – unrestrained, powerful, a force in society and the universe. If these aspects of my human situation are real, if I really am an agent, my situation is better in the fundamental sense that I am what I suppose myself to be – a reflecting, choosing, acting being. Free to choose and act, free from interference.

Now it is at this point that we move closer to the terrain of anti-vaxxers. These people proclaim freedom; they insist on their freedom; decry obstacles to their freedom; understand themselves to have rights to be free from control and interference. Do they believe in free will? Do they think about free will? Do they worry about hard determinism? Or materialism and reductionism? Are they epiphenomenalists? I doubt that a survey has been done but the plausible answer to these questions seems to me to be ‘no.’

In the sense that philosophers such as Christian List concern themselves with it, free will is hardly a crying of such rallies. But I would argue that it is presupposed. People such as anti-vaxxers want free choice, apparently over a wide or even infinite domain of action and in an unqualified sense. They value liberty and personal control. Decrying regulation, apparently insensitive to social needs, these people seem to value freedom absolutely. If personal agency were to be a mere illusion, this high valuing of freedom would not make sense. This loud and clear valuing of freedom presupposes thought, goals, alternatives, choices, and actions. In other words, non-illusory real free will is required. The anti-vaxxers want to act as they wish and cry out for freedom from policies interfering with their actions. From Louisiana and Alberta to Belgium, the Netherlands, Romania, and elsewhere, they tell us loud and clear.

If human beings live on after climate change, perhaps some future generation will include scholars researching the anti-vaxxers during the persistent pandemic of the 2020s. Perhaps some of these researchers will seek to understand the attitudes and actions of these people. At the moment, observers can regret and wonder; we do not claim to understand. But whatever the answer is, communications show that attitudes to freedom are central in the matter. Freedom is a highly exploitable ideological resource. Freedom. Rights. No experts interfering with ‘my control over my body.’ No ‘medical tyranny.’

A friend suggested that the problem with the attitudes of the anti-vaxxers is that they care only about their own personal freedom, and not that of anyone else. Her interpretation is understandable but I’m not sure it’s fair. When several magazines of anti-vax material arrived unsolicited in my mailbox, I read through them to explore the arguments. There were some surprises. One was finding material that left-wing people would have endorsed: appeals to Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and the Nuremburg trials. These appeals were offered in support of the claim that governments can be deceptive and wrong. (Agreed, but there is a need to explore relevance to the case at hand.) Other accounts claimed that COVID was a hoax, one disseminated by governments seeking dictatorial control over populations. Still others claimed that due to rushed research, there were severe side effects and the vaccines posed a danger to health. Now these are arguments of a scientific type, requiring rebuttal by knowledgeable scientists. Much is going wrong here. But the problem does not appear to be one of ‘just me’, heartless egoism. If one were to believe these sorts of anti-vax allegations, one would think that members of the public generally are at risk; one would put out a general warning urging people avoid the vaccines due to potential dangers. Indeed, this unsolicited literature was doing just that. So it does not seem fair to maintain that all anti-vax thinking is self-focussed, ignoring the wellbeing of other people.

Still, there is a residual ‘me, in power of myself’ sense to these appeals. In his article “How America Fractured Into Four Parts”, (Atlantic July/August 2021) George Parker outlines what he understands to be four distinct American narratives: (Real America, Smart America, Free America, Just America.) It is the narrative of Free America that exalts freedom in a ‘don’t tread on me’ sense. Parker understands this narrative as traditionalist, anti-Communist, and politically libertarian, owing much to the thinking of Ayn Rand, and myths of the self-made man. Its underlying assumption is that people should be able to pursue happiness in their own way and enjoy freedom from government interference. Freedom becomes a matter of identity: people cling to their freedom — perhaps because there is a sense that there is not much else to cling to. It becomes a matter of identity. That had a powerful echo for me, with regard to the strident anti-vaxxers. They’re so defensive, so intense: it seems a matter of who they are. So, who are they? They are people who won’t let the government tell them what to put into their bodies. The view is open to rebuttal as highly naïve at this point: governments already do tell us what to put into our bodies when they regulate agriculture, food manufacture, water purification, and thousands of other things.) Against the narrative of the ‘free’, Parker submits that real freedom means growing up. But he doesn’t say what growing up would mean in this context.

I think a central aspect would presumably include recognizing the real and often necessary regulations that structure much of modern life. The value of freedom is not to be denied – and I am not writing here to deny it. Yes, freedom is valuable. It has a high value, to be sure. Very high. Individually and collectively, people have fought for freedom and have died for it. But freedom is not the only value and that is how I would interpret Parker’s reference to growing up. There are other values: life; wellbeing; health, compassion, fairness, justice, equity, truth, consistency. As agents we cannot reasonably pursue just one value, and in cases of value conflict we will have to reason and make choices appropriate to our circumstances. Which values should prevail? In which contexts? And why? We have to understand those circumstances as best we can, and deliberate and debate about what balance is fair. The context of a spreading pandemic is a special one; in that context the wellbeing of many is at stake. The relevant questions about freedom and wellbeing are social, not individual, and they extend further than the bodies of the ‘free.’ Supporting the wellbeing of some may mean imposing costs –in terms of wealth and freedom– on many. This much is clear and the point has been made repeatedly. Values of wellbeing, safety, and life itself are at stake here. In these circumstances, what some claim as their inalienable rights to freedom may properly be outweighed. The truth, most unwelcome to absolutists of every stripe, is that values can and do conflict. We must choose, and choose reasonably.